Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the international statesman of the moment. Greeted as a rock star in Egypt and other countries transformed by the Arab Spring, the Turkish Premier looms like a colossus over the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has been one of the most vocal world leaders to back the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. Popular at home, Erdogan has held his position since 2003, and was recently re-elected to a new term. All the while, both Turkey’s economy and geopolitical footprint have been growing noticeably. Erdogan sat down with TIME’s Jim Frederick, Bobby Ghosh, Tony Karon, Matt McAllester and Ishaan Tharoor on the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York City. The following are excerpts from the conversation, touching upon Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with Israel, the failures of the Middle East peace process, Erdogan’s support for the Arab Spring and frustrations with the U.N., and whether anybody in Ankara still cares about joining the E.U.
TIME: You’ve been outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and statehood. There are people who say all the drama at the U.N. has not helped the peace process. How do you think it has gone?
Erdogan: First and foremost, what is required is for the U.N. Security Council to say yes to the legitimate demands of the people in Palestine. If anything else should be discussed at this moment, it should be between two states. And there’s another fact we need to consider, primarily the borders of 1967. Israel first seems to have accepted going back to the borders of 1967, but somehow seemed to have got distanced from this ideal. They need to get closer back to it. Palestine is in a form of a maze right now.
Through TIME, I’d like to make a call out to humanity: [The Palestinians] are there to exist. They are not there to be condemned to struggle in an open-air penitentiary. Israel’s cruelty in that regard cannot be continued any longer. And, of course, the legitimate demands for Palestine to be a recognized state should be catered to and considered both in the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly. Those who approach these demands negatively will never be able to settle their accounts with history.
Four, five years ago, it seemed that relations between Turkey and Israel were very close and could change the dynamic of the whole region. Now ties appear to be irrevocably broken.
Our mutual relations with Israel would have been reinforced even further only if Israel hadn’t victimized the positive relations of two countries with [its 2010 raid] on the Mavi Marmara, which was navigating in international waters. The flotillas in question were bearing nothing but humanitarian aid, including toys, food and other sorts of materials. They were holding over 450 citizens from 32 countries. One of the casualties is an American citizen of Turkish descent. And right now the Israeli Prime Minister still alleges that the flotillas were actually loaded with weapons. Had they possessed the weapons that were alleged, why didn’t they fire back? There are reports issued by both the U.N. Security Council and U.N. agencies in Geneva about this incident, and you never see the slightest trace that the flotillas were carrying guns. The Israeli government is not being honest at all. Right now, as long as they refuse to apologize for the nine people of Turkish descent who lost their lives on the flotilla, so long as they refuse to pay compensation to the families, and of course as long as the embargo on Gaza has not been lifted, the relations between the two countries will never become normalized.
You and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both made the point at the U.N. General Assembly that the approach the U.S. took to the peace process had failed. What would you do differently to make the peace process work?
Here’s your headline: You need to take a sincerity test before you even think of accomplishing this. [Ask yourselves the question], Do we really want to resolve this issue or not? Unfortunately, I do not even see the traces of this within the Quartet. Because if the Quartet was so willing to resolve this issue, they would have imposed certain issues on Israel today. Until today, the U.N. Security Council has issued more than 89 resolutions on prospective sanctions related to Israel, but they’ve never been executed. And furthermore, there were about 200 resolutions issued by the General Assembly, and neither have those been complied with.
One might wonder why no sanctions have been imposed on Israel. When it’s Iran in question, you impose sanctions. Similarly with Sudan. What happens with Israel then? Had these sanctions been imposed in this day and age, the Palestine-Israel conflict would have been resolved a long time ago. That’s why I’d like all the parties involved to be sincere and stand behind those resolutions. And that is actually also where a need for reform is needed in the U.N. What’s the deal with these permanent-seat-holding members in the Security Council? They should be eliminated. The entire world is literally a slave to the decisions of these five permanent seat holders.
You had a successful trip across the countries of the Arab Spring and many of the people who have removed dictators there seem to look to the Turkish model of democracy. Does your help then become subject to the same types of criticism that the U.S. faces when talking about democratic change around the world?
Unlike others, I didn’t just go there to see a few people on the streets. I intentionally wanted to talk to the candidate presidents, the new political parties there, and I had the opportunity to get together with lots of people in order to grasp the situation. At my meetings, I said, all right, Turkey is a model of democracy, a secular state, a social state with the rule of law upheld. We are not intentionally trying to export a regime — we couldn’t care less. But if they want our help, we’ll provide any assistance they need. But we do not have a mentality of exporting our system.
One country that doesn’t seem to be inclined to follow the Turkish model is Syria. Like with Israel, you worked very hard trying to develop your relationship with President Bashar Assad. Now it appears that relationship is also broken. Is there any kind of prospect for peace in Syria that keeps Assad in power. Or does he have to go?
I am a person who is inclined to define relations between individuals based on principles. It is impossible to preserve my friendship with people who are allegedly leaders when they are attacking their own people, shooting at them, using tanks and other forms of heavy weaponry. Even when we had warm contacts with some of Syria’s leading figures, we could see that they had no intention of replicating our democracy model. We’ve always voiced our recommendations; they never actually listened to them. In our previous correspondences, he has told me has liberated most of the political offenders. Assad told me “we only have about 83 political offenders in prison.” But actually there are thousands and thousands. Those individuals have never been involved in violent attacks or uprisings. They’ve been unfortunately incarcerated based on their faith or their expressions. And you are probably aware of the fact that we have about 7000 guests [refugees] fleeing the Syrian regime hosted in the province of Hatay.
(PHOTOS: Syrians Flee into Turkey)
But you didn’t answer our question. Is there a future for Assad in Syria?
In order for me to be able to comment on this, I need to first visit the camps in Hatay where the refugees are being kept. But in terms of aspirations and hopes, I have previously stated that I am not very optimistic.
Regarding Turkish relations with the U.S., has there be any change over the last few years, particularly with the new administration?
In the last nine years, relations between the U.S. and Turkey have never recessed, never gone back, but they have not improved as much as we’d like. The relationship especially between Obama and us has always been very positive. Whenever we speak to each other, we talk about negotiations of certain processes whether in the region or more globally — we always talk about matters quite frankly. But of course what we want to see is relations getting reinforced at the upmost extent possible, particularly in the realms of the economy and commerce. Because Turkey has great potential to take advantage of. We’re really willing to see more and more U.S. entrepreneurs conducting investments in Turkey. I’m optimistic for the future. I should tell you honestly, there are no tensions between us.
What about over Israel?
There might be different points of view. We agree to disagree on certain issues. But these disagreements are not reasons for disconnecting relations. Turkey is a sovereign state, just like the U.S. We might go to different directions, in terms of our impressions and ideas, but we’ll always remain friends.
As Turkey’s role in the Middle East has grown, has it given up on its earlier ambition of joining the E.U.? Is integration into Europe now a closed chapter?
When [former French President Jacques] Chirac or [former German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroder were there, Turkey would be involved in all of the European leaders’ summits. But when [current Chancellor Angela] Merkel or [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy took over their offices, the ambience changed dramatically. Despite their attitudes, we were determined to continue this path toward E.U. membership. But unfortunately the trust among my people in E.U. membership started to shake and turn. We’re still determined, because no leader in the E.U. will be there forever. They’ll be replaced one day. We might be replaced one day. But Turkey is getting stronger as time goes by, and the situation of many European states is quite obvious.
Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.